Olen Steinhauer dreamed up CIA agent Milo Weaver more than a decade ago. Robert Ludlum introduced soldier-turned-superspy Jason Bourne in 1980; Eric Van Lustbader took on the series in 2004. Kyle Mills, who continued the Mitch Rapp books after series creator Vince Flynn died, has been writing politically charged thrillers since 1997’s Rising Phoenix.
Stories of government intrigue, spycraft, and action-packed combat can spell career longevity for authors: Steinhauer and Mills’s books have sold hundreds of thousands of print copies, per NPD BookScan; Lustbader’s have sold millions. We spoke with these three authors about keeping things fresh while satisfying longtime readers, and with newer writers about the perspectives they’re introducing to a crowded genre.
“I like to educate people as much as entertain them,” says Lustbader, whose numerous books include 11 Jason Bourne thrillers. “Take current events, push them into the future, and help people understand what’s going on in the world.”
Lustbader launches a new espionage series with The Nemesis Manifesto (Forge, May), which PW called “outstanding” in a starred review. “I’d been writing the Jason Bourne novels,” he says, “and I got to the point where it wasn’t fun anymore.” (To see what’s next for Bourne and other espionage, military, and political thriller heroes, see “Patriot Games.”)
To Lustbader’s rescue: a black ops field agent for the Department of Defense, who in her first outing comes up against a shadowy organization known as Nemesis that’s hunting down her fellow agents. “I’d had this idea for Evan Rider for quite some time,” he says. “For thousands of years women have been subservient to men. This has finally begun to change, but grudgingly and not without a fight. Evan Rider gives me a chance to explore the still egregious deficits that women deal with every day.”
Writing about contemporary issues, though, has its risks. “These days you can’t not trigger or upset some people,” Lustbader says. “There’s so much fear in the world today, and people don’t know what to do with it.”
Other veteran authors, too, say that sensitive subjects can spark impassioned reactions. “People are much more primed to be insulted these days,” Steinhauer notes. After the 2009 publication of The Tourist, the first entry in his Milo Weaver espionage series, he experienced some pushback from readers. “I was getting comments online from people who were throwing the book across the room because the CIA becomes one of the antagonists,” he says. “People were angry that I wasn’t being patriotic enough.”
The Tourist went on to sell 143,000 print copies and spawned two sequels. Steinhauer says when he finished the third Weaver installment‚ 2012’s An American Spy, “my publisher asked for the next one. I didn’t have any. I was exhausted.”
Steinhauer wrote three standalones and after a Weaver cameo in the third, 2018’s The Middleman, the now ex-operative returns in The Last Tourist (Minotaur, Mar.). PW’s starred review called the latest book a “stunning” thriller that “reinforces [Steinhauer’s] position at the top of his game.”
For Mills, staying on top of his game means satisfying fans of Vince Flynn, who wrote 13 Mitch Rapp political thrillers before he died in 2013. Mills picked up the Flynn mantle in 2015, when Mills had more than a dozen books to his credit. “I kind of think of the world as BV and AV—before Vince and after Vince,” Mills says. “The U.S. is a very different place politically than it was when Vince was alive. I’m constantly trying to extrapolate how he would have felt about today’s climate.”
In the latest entry in the series, Total Power (Atria/Bestler, Sept.), ISIS strikes the U.S. power grid, and Rapp needs to find those responsible before the country descends into chaos. Flynn’s readers, he says, are looking for a darker story. “It’s sort of like walking into Burger King and they give you sushi,” he says. “You might like sushi, but you walked into Burger King for a burger. People know what they’re getting with this series, and I want to stick to it.”
Mills is among many writers who mine personal history for their fiction: his father was an FBI agent. Another author, Nicholas Irving, spent six years in an Army Special Operations unit and was the first African-American sniper in his battalion. His military action series, the Reaper, written with retired U.S. Army brigadier general A.J. Tata, stars a Ranger sniper.
“Vick Harwood is essentially me,” Irving says, “so writing the character is about as fresh as a writer can get: I know that guy.” St. Martin’s will publish the third Reaper novel, Drone Strike, in May; PW’s review praised the “nonstop action” in this “assured sequel.” Before turning to fiction, Irving wrote a memoir, The Reaper: Autobiography of One of the Deadliest Special Ops Snipers, with Gary Brozek; it’s sold 88,000 print copies since its 2015 publication.
David Ricciardi published his first novel, Warning Light, in 2018, launching an espionage thriller series starring CIA operative Jake Keller. In Keller’s third outing, Black Flag (Berkley, May), he battles piracy in international waters—a plot that Ricciardi says stems from the surge in special operations forces post-9/11 and ongoing trouble in the waters around the Horn of Africa. “I combined the two into a mercenary special ops team that turns piracy from a criminal backwater into a big-ticket operation.”
Ricciardi, an avid outdoorsman who’s received training from law enforcement and special ops personnel, has a network of readers in national security and the military who vet his story lines. “I give them veto power,” he says. “If anything makes them uncomfortable, I take it out. Also, I change some elements that might give away operational security details or give people ideas. Things may be very plausible, but I intentionally make some things incorrect.”
Debut novelist James Stejskal has more than three decades of experience to draw on, first with the U.S. Army Special Forces and then with the CIA. “The things I saw weren’t meant for the public’s eyes and ears,” he says. His nonfiction titles include 2017’s Special Forces Berlin, which relates recently declassified events surrounding Special Forces soldiers stationed in West Berlin during the Cold War.
In Stejskal’s first work of fiction, A Question of Time (Casemate, Oct.), a CIA spy is compromised and Special Forces must rescue him from heavily guarded 1970s East Berlin. “Much of what happens in the book happened in real life,” he says. The book launches the Snake Eater Chronicles, a series that the author says “follows the evolution of the Special Forces and special operations after Vietnam and the end of the Cold War, and through the emergence of terrorism in Europe.”
David Pepper, an attorney, former Cincinnati city council-man, and the chairman of the Democratic Party of Ohio, self-published two political thrillers focused on the work of fictional investigative reporter Jack Sharpe. Putnam picked him up for book three, The Voter File (June), which PW’s review called “a well-researched, gripping look at one of the many perilous wrinkles in the electoral system.”
In his latest outing, Sharpe is looking into the manipulation of election data, which affected the outcome of a relatively minor race but could be applied on a broader, more damaging scale. “People tell me they’re learning from my books,” Pepper says. “They feel like they’re being responsible citizens when they’re reading a book that also might shed some light on political issues.”
Politico called the first book in the series, 2016’s The People’s House, “the thriller that predicted the Russia scandal.” Its story line hinged on Russian interference in a regional U.S. election, a plotline Pepper had planned well before the events of the most recent presidential election. “You don’t have to go wildly off from the reality of the subject,” he says, “to capture the thrill in the thriller.”
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